"I’m face down at the bottom of the Guadalupe River, telling myself I need to get up and breathe. What am I doing here? Oh, yeah, I became a ham radio operator.” Welcome to the Texas Water Safari - The World’s Toughest Canoe Race 2013 and my first experience working communications at the event.
Communicating around river bottoms isn’t always easy, even with the advent of cell phones. This particular event, the Texas Water Safari, began in 1963 long before cell phones were a reality and so Hams – amateur radio operators – have been assisting for quite a few years. Stationed at checkpoints the length of the race course we record the passage and times of race participants and also pass information amongst race officials or team captains if necessary. From Hochheim to the finish line at Seadrift in San Antonio Bay, members of the Victoria Amateur Radio Club (VARC) and the Coleto Creek Amateur Radio Club (CCARC) have volunteered for over 19 years to camp for about three days and keep the checkpoints in touch with each other.
The Texas Water Safari isn’t the only event at which you’ll find local Hams. Ever been to the Family Outdoor Expo? We’re there finding lost parents (because kids know exactly where they, themselves are), identifying safety hazards, and passing along information needed to organizers to keep the event running smoothly and safely. The Missions Tour de Goliad Bicycle Ride held every October will have Hams at the checkpoints covering the 10 to 65 mile routes in Goliad County, plus some mobile Hams tracking down wayward riders, transporting broke-down bikes, and even calling for more pickle juice. We have our own yearly event, too – national Field Day held the last weekend of June - which provides us another chance to set up our stations and invite people to learn more about the world of amateur radio. On Field Day, hams in the United States and Canada camp out, practice for emergencies, picnic, and have informal contests.
Community events give us amateur radio enthusiasts opportunities to set up a communication network and practice our skills. The real test of those skills comes into play in more serious situations and, while we don’t wish for those situations, we are ready to lend a helping hand with our radios.
As reported by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): “Torrential rains over south and southeast Texas during the weekend of October 17-18, 1998, led to widespread and deadly flooding. A total of 31 people died during this event, and property damage estimates approached three quarters of a billion dollars.” Dave Dodge call sign NV5C, employed as Chief Deputy for the DeWitt County Sheriff’s office at the time, recalls the Red Cross representative couldn’t get her cell phone to work and was having trouble coordinating relief efforts. He assigned two Hams to “follow her everywhere except the bathroom and bedroom” and to radio him with whatever she needed. For two days communications for the Red Cross and Sheriff’s Department were assisted by amateur radio operators during what became known as the worst disaster in the history of Cuero.
In Victoria County, VARC members put up an antenna on a church and modified some radios that had been donated to the Red Cross, but weren’t working correctly or set to the proper frequency. Another Ham, John Wagner WA5VBP, set up a portable repeater across the river for area communications. A repeater is an electronic device that picks up weak amateur radio signals and transmits them with more power so they can travel further without degradation. VARC has a portable repeater on wheels that can be picked up, moved, and set up very quickly.
A few years after the big flood a tropical storm made landfall at Surfside and local hams were deployed to Salvation Army mobile kitchens to help them communicate with a base station. Again, this situation was one in which cell phones just didn’t work and land lines were down. In 2003 during hurricane Claudette, the last weather report out of Victoria came from VARC member Harvey Babb WB5MCT. The auto weather station at the airport went dark; the battery backup quit working. It was still running, but not communicating with the National Weather Service. The router had died, even though the analyzer was still working. Harvey was able to pick up the signal and relay the information to Corpus Christi via Ham radio. Thanks to Harvey’s information, the National Weather Service was able to identify the location of the eye of the storm.
In the contiguous United States, there are three power grids: one for the East, one for the West, and one for Texas. If one of the grids, or parts of it go dark like what happened up north during past winter storms, people can be without power for weeks. Phones work – for a while. Generators work – for a while. But eventually, alternative power sources and radios surge in importance and offer life-saving methods for communicating.
Disaster situations and community events aren’t the only times ham radios are useful. Sometimes a fiber cable gets cut leaving large areas with no means of talking to people within and out of the area. Not too long ago Jackson County lost normal channels of communication due to a fiber cut. There were no phones, no land lines, and no internet. The Police Department had a Dispatcher, but there was no way to get calls in or out – even to notify someone that the lines were down! The department was able to transmit via ham radio and other hams who monitor the bands for traffic picked up the distress call and relayed information to Victoria agencies. Serious emergencies could then be routed to nearby counties while the problem was addressed. According to Dave, about 15 years ago in Port Lavaca, hams rode with police officers for a short time when they, too, experienced a fiber cut. The hams helped officers on patrol talk to their dispatch officer.
Dave and Jim Shields AE7JS have located errant signals coming from cable junctions and neighboring electric fences shorting out. In one case, the back of a junction box had blown out or rusted out while the unit was still working (but not for long). Errant signals can also come from other hams. Malicious interference is illegal. Harvey tells a story of some interference and how trying to locate it turned into a real life fox hunt. A couple of hams started triangulating the signal, but then the signal started moving as if the person broadcasting the interference knew he was about to get caught! Turns out it wasn’t malicious intent after all, but a microphone jammed between the seats with its broadcasting button in the “on” position. When the hams caught up to the fellow, he hadn’t realized he was broadcasting. “Oops. Sorry!” Staying on top of little problems as they arise averts bigger problems later on. To set up a station and broadcast on amateur radio bands requires a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Information about licensing requirements and all other areas of amateur radio can be found on the website of the American Radio Relay League www.ARRL.org or contact “Victoria Amateur Radio – VARC” on Facebook.
With all the different uses for ham radios why do people choose to get involved and how did I end up at the bottom of the river?
Last week a few VARC members gathered together to build antennas for a fox hunt. Harvey said one of the things he liked best was sitting around with other hams and bull spitting. For Jim, it’s the comradery: making friends, sharing ideas, sharing worries. For other people it may be the thrill of helping others during emergencies or being prepared for terrorist attacks or even government shut down of typical methods of communication. Or the fun of a bicycle race. A lot of the wives in the club became hams to share the interest with their husbands – and to spend some time with them every once in a while.
Dave says, “It’s amazing to me that I can sit in a room in my house in Cuero Texas and if conditions are right, I can talk to anyone in the world. I have talked to people from all over the world. I’m interested in emergency situations, in contesting, but there’s times I just turn on HF and scan the bands. Not too long ago I talked to the Ivory Coast . . . Morocco . . . Italy. That just knocks my socks off.”
That’s why I became a licensed ham; I wanted to knock my socks off. Not literally, by tumbling down an embankment, breaking my toe, and ending up in emergency instead of broadcasting canoe race times. While that was an adventure, it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.